In the bad old days, I used to make judgments about national character based on three days in the capital city and earnest talks with two cab drivers. But now I am older and wiser, and I temper my judgments with modesty and candor.
Thus: The Argentinians are a happy people. They enjoy drinking coffee, eating beef and saying, “You from America? I love Americans.” The government made people disappear a few years ago, but everything OK now, because capitalism. They have a blue-and-white soccer team, and it’s very hard to get baseball scores here. There are deserts and mountains. Buenos Aires is a very, very large city. There is poverty, sure, but also narrow colorful cobblestone streets, semi-paved sidewalks, and did I mention coffee?
I oversimplify, of course. Also there are empanadas. Many, many empanadas.
I didn’t mention wine, because I don’t drink wine. Neither does Tracy. We are like fish stranded in an ocean of air.
We have only been in two places here so far: The San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and the Puna, which is the high Andean desert in the far northwest of the country. San Telmo is like someone’s dream of a picturesque Latin American neighborhood, with urban necessities — grocery stores, pharmacies, electronics stores — cheek by jowl with urban amenities — internet cafes, eccentric apartments, dark welcoming bars. Tourists, millennials, pensioners; they’re all here, in proportions not clear to me.
The Puna is something else entirely, a vast wilderness of unexpected geologic wonders, immense plains at 11,00 feet, mountains topping out at 17,000 feet — and it’s not even the real Andes. I’ve been all over the American West, and nothing there (except the Grand Canyon) comes close to the splendor of the Puna.
Dotted along the way are mining towns (borax, lithium, copper), both abandoned and not. In between are oases, sudden explosions of green in a brown landscape. There are vicuña roaming the hillsides, along with wild burros, rheas (a kind of ostrich), flamingos, llamas (tame), plus Andean ducks, geese and vultures.
We did a homestay in Antofallita, a village of 30 people nestled in a narrow canyon at the edge of a sea of sand. We walked around at twilight, saying “hola” and “buenos” and waiting for the children to appear. Which they did, shy or bold, staring at us as though we were visitors from another planet.
Which we were. But they trusted us — which, it can be argued, is always humanity’s first mistake.
Our guide was Joaquin Bergese, a burly former rugby player with an excellent command of English, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Puna, and an easy laugh. We recommend him without reservation.
We spent many hours in the car together, talking or not talking, watching the road unspool to reveal this or that new wonder. On our fourth day together, we discovered a mutual affection for the blues. We spent hours listening to his recording of the 2013 Crossroads Blues Festival, with guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Stevie Winwood and…the list was endless.
They were singing about that train that was coming down the tracks, or asking if we’d ever been mistreated, or pleading with us to shake our moneymakers, and we opened the windows and drove through the desert like we were 16 again, on our first road trip, just happy to be us and there.
We got back to civilization and, for the first time in five days, I opened up the Twitter machine. My God, I thought, the world has gone mad. Or maybe it was always mad, and I just hadn’t noticed. Emails and FBI reports and Anthony fucking Weiner — how is he back? Can I find a hovel somewhere and raise goats and mutter into the sunset?
We’ve been invited to an election viewing party in Buenos Aires. Since it’s right where we’ll be staying, we’ll be there. (Our splendid apartment is run by the lovely and talented Beatrice Murch, and you can stay there too!) I imagine people will be talking back to the television. I plan to ask them whether cursing is permitted. I won’t be able to stop myself, but it is polite to ask.
Tonight: Overnight bus to the Ibera wetlands, for bird-watching and drifting. Later on: Patagonia. Next time: How my wife saved my life, and the miracle of the bananas.
Photography by Tracy Johnston
Long distance help by Michelle Mizera